SPECTRE, the latest James Bond movie and the fourth to star Daniel Craig as 007, offers many pleasures, especially a sense of fun missing from Bond movies for too long and a certain evil organization that has been missing even longer. About 90 percent of it makes for an ideal Bond movie.
The other 10 percent frustrates. This 10 percent marks the distance between SPECTRE being an above average Bond and one of the best. The missteps are yank-your-hair-out kind of stuff, because director Sam Mendes and producers Michael G. Wilson and Barbara Broccoli should not have got these things wrong. Some of it comes down to a few characters and situations needing stronger development, but some of it violates basic screenwriting wisdom. A major character’s motivation should not be reduced to a few lines of dialogue.
As noted, SPECTRE is Craig’s fourth Bond movie and shares a trajectory with the fourth films of his most successful forebears, Sean Connery and Roger Moore. The third film for all three actors—Connery’s Goldfinger, Moore’s The Spy Who Loved Me and Craig’s Skyfall—struck box-office gold beyond even the producers’ expectations. In each case the filmmakers decided to
follow-up on these hits by doubling down on the elements that made them successful and adding to the running time. The results were movies that were bigger and more extravagant, but hollower than their immediate predecessors.
Yet Connery’s Thunderball and Moore’s Moonraker would become their highest-grossing outings. Don’t look for this history to repeat. It would take a miracle for SPECTRE to top Skyfall’s billion-dollar box office.
But how does SPECTRE rank alongside the other No. 4 Bonds? It is
certainly superior to Moonraker, an oft-ridiculed Bond that is better than
its reputation. SPECTRE is not quite as good as Thunderball, despite sharing some of its flaws. It also is too long (at 2 hours and 28 minutes, SPECTRE is the longest 007 movie) and loses its way for a bit during a protracted second act. (I have not included Pierce Brosnan in this discussion, in case you were wondering, because his third film, The World Is Not Enough, is his least memorable. I know I’d rather forget it.)
SPECTRE marks the long-awaited return to the 007 series of SPECTRE, the sinister organization that Ian Fleming created for the novel Thunderball and that featured in every 1960s Bond film except Goldfinger. SPECTRE and its master, Ernst Stavro Blofeld, have been absent from the official series since 1971’s Diamonds Are Forever because of legal reasons too complicated to explain here, but if you want the full story track down Robert Sellers’ excellent history The Battle for Bond, where you will learn how SPECTRE and Blofeld were able to make an unofficial return in Connery’s abominable 1983 Thunderball remake, Never Say Never Again.
SPECTRE begins with Bond ambushing assassin Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona) in Mexico City during the Day of the Dead in an action sequence grander in scale and scope than Skyfall’s Istanbul opening without being as exciting. Bond’s prize is the killer’s ring, which is adorned with an octopus that will be familiar to longtime 007 fans.
Back in London Bond is harangued by M (Ralph Fiennes, who took over
for Judi Dench at the end of Skyfall) for causing another international
incident without orders. I worried this was another “Bond goes rogue” plot that
has become routine in the Craig films, but it turns out Bond did have a legitimate reason to take out Sciarra. With a little help from Moneypenny (Naomi Harris) and Q (Ben Wishaw) Bond is able to sneak out of London and pursue his investigation in Rome, where he meets Sciarra’s widow, Lucia (Monica Belucci). Belucci has gained attention for being the oldest Bond woman (she was 50 when she filmed her scenes) but she should be getting more attention for being among the smartest and sexiest. Unfortunately, her role is much smaller than the film’s publicity would indicate.
Bond’s pursuit of the secret of the ring leads to old nemesis Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), now near death and being targeted by the successors to Quantum, the SPECTRE stand-in from Craig’s first two movies. Mr. White agrees to share information with Bond as long as 007 protects his daughter,gorgeous French doctor (of what I’m not sure) Madeleine Swann (Léa
Seydoux), who is being hunted by the ferocious hitman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista, Drax from Guardians of the Galaxy).
Craig’s last two films lacked a genuine leading lady, perhaps because the producers figured they could never top Casino Royale’s Eva Green, so why bother? Consequently the last two Bonds have been heavy on the action but light on the sex and—hallelujah!—Seydoux brings sex appeal back to Bond. She enters a luxury train’s dining car (by the way, are there actually luxury trains currently operating in the deserts of North Africa?) wearing a shimmering pale blue silk creation that is the series’ most stunning dress since Barbara Bach’s midnight blue evening gown in Spy Who Loved Me.
“You shouldn’t stare,” she tells Bond.
“Well, you shouldn’t look like that,” he replies.
What’s that? Witty romantic banter back in a Bond movie? Again I say, “Hallelujah!”
SPECTRE offers many such moments that had this longtime Bond fan praising the lord, or at least Sam Mendes. The glories of SPECTRE are all the elements it restores to Bond, starting right in the first few seconds with the gun barrel sequence back at the beginning. If you hear cheers and applause as Craig strolls out in a white dot then spins to shoot the camera, you’re in a theater with Bond fans ecstatic to behold their sacred icon returned to its rightful place.
SPECTRE lifts the scrim of angst that has been shading the Craig
era and allows a genuine sense of humor to flow throughout the film, not just
at moments that require comic relief. Don’t worry. This isn’t the slapstick and
buffoonery of Diamonds Are Forever or Moonraker. This is the light, sophisticated comedy of Goldfinger or On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. SPECTRE is the first entry in Craig’s reign, plus the latter half of Brosnan’s reign, that truly feels like a classic Bond movie.
The shift in tone allows Craig to ease up on his Broody McBroodpants characterization of Bond. We already knew that Craig, the most pugilistic of 007s, could muscle and punch and snarl his way through the films, but what a joy it is to discover that he can quip with the ease of Connery and Moore. The last two actors in the role never mastered the skill. Timothy Dalton always seemed embarrassed by the one-liners and Brosnan’s delivery was clunky
(although he was contending with dreadful scripts).
Even more than Skyfall, SPECTRE returns to the premium of global locations, all given the travel brochure treatment by cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema (who took a grittier look at the espionage world in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). After Mexico City, Bond journeys to places cosmopolitan (Rome), wintry (the Austrian Alps) and arid (Morocco) and finds danger in each of them.
Although action has never left the series, SPECTRE brings the outlandish back to the set pieces. A helicopter performs barrel rolls (filmed at the same angle as the famous barrel roll car jump from The Man With the Golden Gun). Bond steers a gadget-packed Aston Martin DB 10 through the nighttime streets of Rome pursued by Mr. Hinx’s equally sleek Jaguar CX75. In an amusing twist, the gadgets don’t quite work as Bond expects.
A return bout with Mr. Hinx becomes into the best Bond fight scene in forever, at least since Brosnan and Sean Bean whaled on each other at the end of GoldenEye. The fight takes place aboard that luxury train, and the battle combines elements of the train fights from Spy Who Loved Me and From Russia With Love. To be honest, the obvious tributes to highlights from previous Bond films become a bit trying. I hope the next Bond director doesn’t share Mendes’ preoccupation with nostalgia.
Mr. Hinx is an honest attempt to resuscitate the Bond trope of the invincible henchman, and the character clearly blends the DNA of Harold Sakata’s Oddjob and Richard Kiel’s Jaws. Bautista plays the killer as an unstoppable human wrecking ball, and he adds a powerful sense of menace. Yet SPECTRE doesn’t develop the character well. For starters, I’m not sure he qualifies as a henchman. That implies he has a boss. It is never clear whether Mr. Hinx (whose name is not spoken) is working for SPECTRE or is an assassin applicant still on his probationary period. And he just vanishes from the story. You expect him to reappear as Jaws always did, but he doesn’t.
Miss Moneypenny and Q, stalwart characters in the old Bond movies, didn’t make their Craig-era debut until Skyfall. Harris and Whishaw are already so comfortable in the roles that you would swear they have been around since Casino Royale. They help make SPECTRE feel like a real James Bond movie.
Fiennes’ M is more of a problem. His acting can’t be faulted, that would be absurd, but his role in the film can be. When it became apparent Fiennes was Dench’s replacement, I worried the producers had made a mistake in hiring him. After Dench won her Oscar for Shakespeare in Love, the MI6 chief gained more screen time in each film, following Bond into the film to harangue him. I fretted that by hiring Fiennes the producers wouldn’t just continue the bad idea of turning M into Bond’s costar, but compound it. You don’t hire an actor of Fiennes’ profile to sit behind a desk and issue orders for one scene at the beginning of the movie.
I was right to fret. In SPECTRE, M gets not just his own subplot but his own adversary, MI5 chief Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott, who plays Moriarty on Sherlock). Having arranged to merge MI6 and MI5 (which would be like merging the CIA and the FBI, and just as unlikely) Denbigh has convinced the British government to outsource its intelligence work to a multinational, privately financed version of the NSA. “We’re going to bring British intelligence out of the dark ages and into the light,” he says. Because as the real NSA learned with Edward Snowden, nothing can possibly go wrong when you farm out secret work to private contractors.
Aiming directly at the heart of the series, Denbigh threatens to end the double-0 program. Unveiling his computerized surveillance network, Denbigh says to M, “You can’t tell me that one man in the field can compete with all this.” Denbigh comes uncomfortably close to the politician played by Alec Baldwin in this summer’s “Mission: Impossible” movie who wanted
to kill the Impossible Missions Force, but Denbigh’s motives are more sinister.
Here is where SPECTRE gets frustrating. The M vs. Denbigh
storyline is a drag on the rest of the film, and Scott, who plays perhaps the most
annoying character in Bond history, receives more screen time than Bellucci and Bautista combined. The resources spent on this ill-advised subplot should have been reallocated to shore up the areas where the main plot sags. Because they are sensitive areas.
To face a hard truth, one of the things that SPECTRE gets wrong is SPECTRE. The script, credited to John Logan, the team of Neal Purvis and Robert Wade (who have contributed to every Bond since The World Is Not Enough) and Jez Butterworth, is so concerned with keeping the shadowy organization secret from the audience for the first two-thirds of the film that by the time its purpose is revealed, SPECTRE doesn’t seem like much of a threat.
Look at how the classic Bond films, particularly From Russia With Love and Thunderball, handled SPECTRE. The organization’s plot is spelled out to the audience early, before Bond learns what is going on, and thus suspense is created instead of confusion. The new movie serves up a classic SPECTRE boardroom scene (with a suspiciously large audience), but why do the filmmakers insist on shrouding the organization in mystery? The title of the
movie is SPECTRE, for crying out loud.
With SPECTRE, there must be Blofeld. Or must there? Christoph Waltz, clad in a Nehru jacket and shrouded in shadow at the head of the boardroom table, certainly has a Blofeld air to him in the trailers. But his character is identified as Franz Oberhauser, and the script teases he may not be Blofeld. Perhaps Blofeld is someone else, such as Scott. He’s played Sherlock Holmes’ nemesis, why not Bond’s? I won’t reveal the script’s big secret, but be prepared for an anticlimax.
Waltz’s character is the son of Hannes Oberhauser, a figure mentioned in Ian Fleming’s short story “Octopussy” whom Bond describes as “something of a father to me at a time when I happened to need one.” Oberhauser was an Austrian mountain guide who took Bond in after his parents died. This means that Bond and the younger Oberhauser (who isn’t mentioned in the Fleming story) were like brothers.
Yet after elaborately introducing this facet of Bond’s past that comes directly from Fleming, who revealed very little about Bond’s childhood, the filmmakers do nothing with it. Nothing! Craig and Waltz pay lip service to having a shared past, but their performances fail to indicate they ever knew each other. Waltz commits his best to being silky and menacing, but the script doesn’t ask much more of him. Though not Waltz’s fault, he is a tremendous disappointment after Javier Bardem set new standards for Bond villainy in Skyfall.
SPECTRE gets a lot right. What it gets right accounts for the purest Bond experience in 20 years, with another bulls-eye performance from Craig (who will probably do one more Bond, no matter what he’s been saying lately). The two weakest links in the movie are SPECTRE and Blofeld. After being out of the Bond producers’ hands for more than 40 years, these should
have been the movie’s strongest assets. The Bond filmmakers may get a chance to right the situation next time, but how they could get so many classic elements right except the two that should have mattered most is unfathomable.